Team Member Volunteer Chronicles: Kenya #3


Thanks to Lisa Slater from contributing this blog post.


It’s the main reason people come to work at Whole Foods Market. Ask any future Whole Foods Market Team Member why they want to work in our stores and they will say that they are passionate about food in all its glory: buying it, cooking it, eating it, and managing their health with it.

So it’s no surprise that when you get eleven highly passionate, motivated, articulate Team Members on a trip together, the topic turns to food. We started by having a round of emails sharing what each of us would have as our last supper, so to speak. It’s not that we thought we would be deprived but we knew that whatever we ate on our trip to Kenya would be different. Kevin had a meal so succulent (short ribs), that he shared his photos of it with us. I had left-over pizza!

Our breakfast at our luxurious and elegant hotel in Nairobi on our first day in Kenya was a poolside buffet, complete with made-to-order omelets, pancakes, granola, yogurt, brown toast, in short, all the comforts of home. And believe me we took advantage of it having received word from previous Team Member volunteers  to Kenya that the food in Maai Mahiu was, well, monotonous. And because plans can change, it is always possible that meals wouldn’t occur with the same regularity as at home.

And so we were advised to pack some edible fortification. Here’s a random sampling of what we brought; I thought our vendors might like to know….

All sorts of cereal, protein and energy bars: Kind, Pro, Clif and Nugo bars. Supplements and probiotics galore; and a few treats: dark chocolate, peanut Sundrops, Newman’s Own Sour Apple Licorice, and the most unusual item of all Nature’s Own Pomegranate Pop Tarts.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are held in the dimly lit dining room, the table set with two squeeze bottles, one yellow and one red, and one salt shaker. Breakfast is a steady offering of eggs cooked into thin omelets sometimes jazzed  (!) up with onions and peppers, most of the time not, and accompanied by white toast in a chafing dish, chubby bananas on the side. We’re not quite sure if the eggs are fresh or powdered but we are happy for the protein.

We all hover over the coffee maker as it expresses a sigh when the brew is finished, refusing to give up our cherished java. A big jar of peanut butter gets passed down the table as butter is unavailable, and most of the time a plate with a bright red fluid masquerading as jelly. At first, we loaded up on toast but as we became acclimated to the meal plan, meal conversation turned to carbs: how many we’ve consumed since we arrived, how bad they are for us, and how really good they tasted even if they are bad!

Fried potatoes, wedges and slices, unadorned pasta, white rice, yellow rice, pilau rice, green bananas so starchy they passed  as potatoes, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with kale, slivered kale and onions, cabbage alone, cabbage with carrots, cabbage with kale. Lentils and vegetables in some form of sauce, and small pieces of nicely grilled and deliciously aromatic animal proteins: goat, chicken and fish cycle through lunch and dinner. Those two squeeze bottle have become close friends as they spice up our meals with a reddish, mildly spicy sauce or its yellow cousin,  that definitely isn’t mustard. All the food is really well-prepared if repetitive and bland.

So it was no wonder that we all scarfed down a large platter of homemade guacamole prepared by Marsha with minimal implements but with really fresh avocados, onions, and tomatoes, scooped up with super salty potato chips.

However, our meals are positively world-class compared to the diets of the people we meet. Ugali, a polenta like porridge, made with cornmeal either sweet or savoury is the local dish, not terribly healthy but inexpensive. One of the CTC International programs is helping the Maai Mahiu Elementary School plant a huge garden in order to teach the kids easy ways to broaden their diets, and by extension, those of their families.

We visited the school today and were surrounded by hundreds of squealing, laughing kids, who are in school from 7am to 5pm. Most have sweet ugali and tea or white bread for breakfast, and ugali and beans for lunch.

They plant onions, kale, tomatoes, green peppers, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, corn and sunflowers. This being Kenya, they get two harvests a year and take what they grow home to their families. The skills and habits they learn, from planting techniques like sack gardens, to washing their hands in a nifty apparatus called a Tip Top (which reuses recycled vegetable oil jugs rigged up to a frame, filled with water and suspended by rope and tilted by pressing a pedal on the ground, thereby tilting the jug and pouring out water) help them stay alert and healthy.  They were energetic, unafraid to ask questions and intensely curious.

Returning to our temporary home (hotel) in Maai Mahiu, to our same old, same old dinner, we were grateful for what we have here and even more grateful for what we have at home.